There is this feeling, like a stone dropped into the heart, that makes you say: sometimes you just know. I cherish that feeling, because in case posts on floors and paint haven’t made it clear, it’s not usually where I live. But weeks ago, while we drove the long road back from Georgia, I sat (cross-legged, who doesn’t) and read my book (about taxes, why not) and knew that soon I’d say goodbye to Dayton Grit. And this is that time.

Not because we are done. Ohmygoshwearenotdone.

In Oldest House we still have a staircase we want to take out and a laundry room we need to build and a bathroom and a kitchen to revamp. In two weeks the painters come to finish the outside (the shrubs from the Christmas photo have been cleared out to make way):

Christmas photo, but you can see: the front was very shrubb-y.

Christmas photo, but you can see: the front was very shrubb-y.

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And at Old House we still need to take care of a few little details. Like HVAC and electric and plumbing and putting up walls. Ohmygoshwearenotdone.

But what I also know is that we’ll never be done. Which is fine, because real life doesn’t do happy endings. Happiness means life is still unfolding. So we will finish these renovations—in time for the second round to begin. And in the middle of all of that, we will be happy and we will be sad and we will love and we will fight and we will be living.

The other day Kyle and I talked about these last two years, and in case you were wondering: yes, we’d do it again. And we mean the whole thing, with the stolen truck and the dying birds and the bellies in the dirt. With the kitchen that looked like this:

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I’ve talked about staying in the proximal zone, and it makes so much sense, but what I’ve come to believe in even more is taking on something that is far bigger. Trusting you will grow to meet it. The downside, of course, is that accelerated growth is painful. And if you don’t have support, it’s more than painful. But we did have support—our people. Whether they were in Ohio or Georgia or New York or Texas or somewhere else. Not to mention this guy:

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And this girl:

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And each other. And so what I keep thinking of is one of the contractors who came to visit Old House, who stood awed in the open chasm of the living room. He turned and he turned, taking in everything. He listened to me tell the story: of how we bought it without seeing it, not imagining how big a project could be. How we threw ourselves into another home, and then into another, because this home was nowhere near ready. How we’ve struggled and how we’ve kept moving on and how we are nowhere near done yet but how we are not giving up.

And he stopped turning and taking it in. He put a hand on his chin and looked at me. And he said, I don’t mean to pry or anything, but how is your marriage? Because this stuff… this stuff is hard.

Which I’ve heard before, from our veteran renovators, about all the marriages that crumbled along with the plaster and old brick during the big transformation that swept the neighborhood.

And I said, and I meant it, we’re doing great. I mean, it’s been hard, sometimes. But we’re doing great.

Which is true. Sometimes you set out to build one thing and you build something else instead.

It’s been a beautiful two years.

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Memorial Day. We are sitting in the park, in a big, rough circle, in lawn chairs and on blankets and straight on the damp grass. We are balancing plates of pulled pork and fresh beet salad and fresh fruit. We are talking and one person is juggling and other people are complaining (about the line for the food) and there is some gossiping and there is lots of eating. That is neighbors.

Around which time, a neighbor asks: are you still doing that blog thing?

Not really, I say.

Too busy doing the thing you are blogging about, he says. Smiling.

No, not really, I say. It’s just—you know, you write to learn from something. But now that I’ve written about the houses for so long, I keep turning up the same lessons. Like: stay committed. But be flexible. Like: be nice to each other. Same thing, again and again.  It’s hard to say it new.

And that’s true. Renovating seems to teach so many of the same things, whether we’re working with wallpaper or siding or plaster or foundations. Or one of us is spending [fill insane number of hours here] shopping for a stair runner while the other person is upstairs in the land of dusty drywall for [fill in insane number of hours here].

I’ll let you guess who was the one drywalling. Handiwork here:

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Anyway, at that neighborhood Memorial Day picnic, the one with the juggling and the pulled pork and the conversation about Dayton Grit, someone brought a book about veterans and wedged it at the start of the buffet. Trying to remind us all, in the midst of food and gossip, what the day was about. Because we forget the things we never could have imagined we’d forget.

And so I know, too, that one day we will forget most of what we learned with these houses. What I hope is that it is mostly drywall installation and sanding techniques and those types of things that we lose. Not the really important stuff.

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Kyle and I just spent a long, busy weekend making our house look worse. I kept saying, brokenly, “this is what progress looks like.”

I am too embarrassed to show you what progress looks like. Progress is fixing garbage disposals and unpacking half of a garage and laundry/laundry/laundry and washing and hanging curtains. And planting sage and ivy because, clearly, that’s a priority. Oh, and here is something I can show you: progress is putting molding/shoerail up over the newly painted floors.

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Progress is also a loopback, because probably one of the most delightful moments of this weekend was reuniting with my final box of packed up stuff. Stuff I haven’t seen in two years. I know what you are thinking—that if you can put something away for two years and not miss it, you probably don’t need it—but this is a box full of things that I have been lamenting the loss of for two years. I have, above all, been longing for my Prodigal Bookends. For months I’d turn to Kyle out of the blue and ask him where he thought the bookends could be. Shockingly his answer was, always, a disinterested, “hm, I don’t know.”

I’ll tell you where they could be: sitting in a corner of Old House, in a box labeled “Jana’s stuff,” covered in coal dust. It was like a reunion on top of a reunion. First the coal dust, sticking to shirt and hands and hair, calling me back to two summers ago. But beneath that! My antique mirrored bookends (which I was sure I’d never see again) and the vintage books (which sat on the tables at our wedding more than five years ago) and the flying pig statue (which I am always going to love, even if Kyle has been eyeing it askance for about five years as well) and the other pieces that sat on our mantle in the clean, pretty, normal house we once had in Texas.

Progress isn’t always the new. Sometimes it’s a return. So I cleaned it all up—and put it all back in place, in our new house, as best as I could. Some of us are a little worse for wear. My pretty bookends now have a good side and a bad side. But: we’re here.

The rule of renovating (which is very different from the rules of real estate) is that things will take three times as long and cost twice as much. Or maybe it’s the other way: things will take twice as long and cost three times as much. But Kyle and I are rule-breakers, which is why I am pretty sure that our renovations will never end and that we will have plunked everything (of ourselves and of our wallets) into these places.

And, actually, I don’t have a problem with that. If there is one thing these houses have taught us, insistently and vigorously, it’s that we can’t really control the process. Just about the only thing we can control is who we are and what we’re committed to.

This is a good thing to tell yourself when, on a rainy day, your neighbors call to tell you that your fence is lying in the street and you have to meet up with your husband after work, in your heels, to pick up the crumbly fence and push it back into place. What we can’t control: gravity, the physics of old wood. What we can control: whether we get bummed about yet another thing, or whether we brush the mud off of our hands and go home and make dinner and say, “How was your day?” and don’t talk about the fence. At all.

The houses are teaching us to be the second sort of person.
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Fence aside, Old House is still making an ungainly waddle forward, thanks to the carpenters at work.

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Things keep changing—floor plans, structural plans, schedules—and so the only thing to hold onto is our goal: the house done. And somehow, some way, we will get there. Unless someone wants to buy Old House, in which case message me, because: SOLD!

We will get there is a good thing to keep saying to yourself. Especially when, walking the dog on a sunny day, your neighbor stops to say hello. And to mention that your fence is lying in the street. Again.

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On Saturday I came home to find Kyle had bought flowers, puffs of yellow and spiky strands of snapdragons and naïve little carnations, and I tried to figure out how to squeeze them into the vintage blue mason jar unearthed from the basement of Old House. Thank you, Old House, I thought. Because life is like that: unequal in its pleasures. And somehow this new-old vase, which I adore, can blanket the pain of everything Old House has asked.

In addition to (badly) arranging flowers, this weekend we painted our floors in Oldest House. Or we started, anyway. Because those that said the floors were pretty beat up, they weren’t wrong. And also, we would like to have a usable upstairs sometime in our lifetime—a big goal, I know, but just can’t stop the ambition—and our refinishing attempt was going to take us the rest of our lives.

So we prepped—sanding and washing down with TSP and letting it dry—and then we layered on a coat of a floor paint. One thing I’ve learned from this process is that British people are way ahead of us on the painted-floor curve (perhaps because they are used to dealing with wonky old floors) and so it’s not a surprise that what seems to be the best floor paint comes from a British company. Which, for bonus points, is no VOC and doesn’t give you a headache as you lay it on.

And, one coat in, we have this:

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I know, I know. Painted floors are a love ‘em or hate ‘em thing. Eventually, if resale comes, we will lay something new down. But we like then and we are the ones living here right now. Which is exactly what I can picture the homeowners back in the 1800s saying, as they swabbed emerald green on the boards, and then the folks who painted the floors scarlet a decade or so later. I mean, we have to live in these houses, but mostly we have to live
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We left the floors to dry and went downstairs, and because I no longer had floors floors floors on the mind, I could take a fresh look at our life. On the dining room table sat the new flowers. Next to last week’s flowers, edging into decline. Sitting beside two other vases of fake flowers that haven’t yet found their forever homes. Four flower arrangements on one table and we hadn’t even noticed, because Oldest House is still barely-tamed chaos.

Hm, I said. Maybe it’s a little much.

It’s a little excessive, Kyle agreed.

Too many flowers. Too many things to do. But it’s a hard thing to be upset by. I can picture the upstairs: a blank, calm place. Waiting.

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What I’ve been doing these last few Mondays, like a strange blogger-squirrel, is writing posts and hoarding them. Instead of homing them at Dayton Grit, I let them sit, so that I could test how it felt to say goodbye to this space. And what I found was: it feels pretty good.

Writing is so useful for patting and patching and molding an experience until it’s something you feel okay with. It’s also useful good for faking completion when there’s no end in sight. But I don’t think it’s any accident that, as we’ve crept up to the two year mark of moving to Dayton, I’ve found myself not needing to write about the houses in the same way. Two years is a magical mark. It’s when people fall out of love and the euphoria of lottery-winning fades and the pain of losing a limb diminishes. It’s, also, apparently, when the shock of renovating wears off. If the walls of Old House and New House and Oldest House could talk, they’d say something like, in a lazy, off-hand way: I’m alright. You alright?

Yep, I’m alright.

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So here I am, un-squirreling. I’m posting these old, hoarded posts, throughout the rest of the week, with the final post next Monday. Because May 25 is, give or take a day, our two year Dayton-versary. Which will be a celebration, because I mean, guys? We even have a real closet now and it has almost all of our clothes.

It’s pretty big-time. And it’s time.

 

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We were out of town this weekend, celebrating the legacy left by a lovely woman, and so we can take no credit for any improvements at Old House or Oldest House.

By improvements, I mean the stairs at Old House are no longer trying to actively hurt people. They’ve been rebuilt from the steep 9″ risers we once had to stairs that meet modern code. And Oldest House is now nested in an embarrassment of daffodils, showy and fluorescent. Yellow times yellow times yellow.

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We had no idea the daffodils were there, patiently waiting out the winter. Or their cousin the dandelion, which sprouted at the front door, and which pulled me back to summertime walks with my great-grandmother when I was a child. Every few feet we paused while she plucked dandelions from sidewalk cracks and tossed them into a plastic bag, so that she—an Italian farm girl—could later turn those Bronx weeds into a salad.

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So while at work the motto of my office is no surprises, and I embrace that whole-heartedly, in life I want to say: yes, surprises. Yes to things left behind and unfinished edges and a little bit of messiness. Yes to memories like weeds, rooting in whatever sliver of space they find. So today Mango and I sat on the limestone walkway of Oldest House, right between the daffodils left by the previous owners and the uninvited dandelions, and we let the hot sun soak in. Welcoming those unexpected things, all of them.

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And, okay: maybe one of us didn’t sit so much as sprawl.

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Two weekends ago I finished my real estate classes. Also, that same weekend I quit the organization I’ve worked for over the last seven years, first full-time and then on-and-off part-time. I don’t know if one thing precipitated the other. What I do know: sometimes we have to break the old to let the new in.

Not that I have anything against the old. For example: old houses. Love those heartbreakers. In the last week or so Old House has undergone a radical transformation, which is basically the building of a new house inside an old house.

I don’t want to call anyone out, but let’s just say that someone in the 1870s decided to add a three foot addition to the left side of the house and that this same someone forgot to tie the new left side of the house to the old right side. Also, this same someone may or may not have plopped a new roof on, without bothering to take off the old roof, which meant the weight of two roofs pushing against two untied walls eventually popped out the wooden pegs barely managing to keep things connected. So the inside of the house stood proudly: proudly disconnected from the outside of the house. And then this same someone put on a whole new room, with the floor running parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the joists. Which meant the floors rested on nothing, for the most part. And don’t even get me started on the other someones, those who cut through beams haphazardly once indoor plumbing became a thing, and who moved stairs to create rental rooms for soldiers without any concerns for structure.

But Old House is here for the long-haul now. Because of a wonderful (obsessive, meticulous, kind) structural engineer and a team of (competent, organized, kind) carpenters who have built a structure that ties the old and the new together. There are other threads between here and the past, too. The carpenters working on the project are brothers, just like Milt and his brother who worked on the house long ago. And they are buying lumber from a shop that has stood in town since 1860, which means there’s a pretty good chance that’s where the Finches got the wood to remodel Old House long ago.

I like that. Because while two weekends ago was about breaking from the past, this weekend was about re-meeting it. We went back to where I grew up and saw family, and my friends since elementary school, and my friends since college. We celebrated Easter in big Italian family-style, like usual.

If we do it right the new grafts gracefully onto the old. So new chubby-legged babies were bounced on laps, and we ate Easter dinner at a restaurant (a first). And afterwards there was a retreat to my grandparents’ home and there were orange cookies made from my great-grandmother’s recipe and my grandmother bustling around to see who wants espresso. And a swarm of well-fed people, family and friends, both familiar and new, crowding into the kitchen to talk and talk and talk.

And then today we came home to our new home and checked on Old House. Which is missing stairs right now. But which otherwise stands stronger than ever.

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What we were talking about is how quickly houses fall apart when no one is in them. See: Oldest House, which was bank-owned before we got it.

And I said that, as much people need houses, houses need people. If houses were living, we would see it as a symbiotic relationship.

And he was like, uh huh. And then he went back to what we were really talking about, which was: floors. And he (as in, the floor refinisher) told me what I now know to be true, because I have done my research on wear layers and sanding depths, which is, of course you can save these floors. It’s just a question of how much work you want to put into it and how much money you want to spend.

In case you are wondering, my answer to both is always “as little as possible.” But the houses are always like, “tons of it!” and “all of it!” Which is why, sometimes, this relationship is less symbiotic and more parasitic.

These time-eaten, painted boards of Oldest House are a quandary. Oh, the rabbit hole of research I’ve gone down. In case you were wondering: if you want to get the paint off, sanding probably isn’t wise, in case the paint has lead, which means chemical strippers or heat methods, and all of the variations of each. Then there is the question of how to prep the floors after stripping for finish and what finish to use. If you want to paint, you better think through which color you want (and do not—do not—start researching how the north/south/east/west sun exposure impacts particular shades of white, because you might not be seen for days) and how to best prep the floors and what type of paint will work best on this particular substrate, because pine moves and many durable floor finishes don’t (did you know you can still get linseed oil paint, which is both amazing and expensive?). And if you are going to put new wood floors down over old wood floors, well, what direction? Perpendicular to old boards means parallel to joists, which is usually a no-no, and then there’s the possibility of laying down another plywood subfloor first, which raises all sorts of door/height issues, and then there is the question of whether you’ve chosen the best profile for your wood (shiplap, tongue and groove, square cut) and given that profile and the floor you are going over, whether you should screw down or face nail and if so, how often?

So I talked to another guy who knows floors, and explained my conundrum—the three options of stripping paint and refinishing, or just painting, or putting new floors down. And he said, well, I guess if I was you I’d start with the least permanent thing and give it a go till I gave up and went on to the next thing.

I’ve learned this lesson before. After my undergraduate degree I spent six years wondering whether I should go to graduate school in psychology, finally decided to do it, and then on day one of statistics class realized that what I’d really done was spend six years forgetting how much I hate statistics and how much that is part of psychology. So I quit. And finally shaken free of psychology, a few weeks later I applied to a creative writing program on a whim, which was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I may or may not be saying that because creative writing doesn’t involve statistics at all.

I’m glad Oldest House is reminding me: that messy action can trump introspection. That there are times when failing is necessary, a way of earning the right to move forward. I guess if I was you I’d start with the least permanent thing and give it a go till I gave up and went on to the next thing. So here we are at the start of it. Let’s see what happens.

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And they still look old, because they are. Good enough for now (eventually the stairs are coming out).

We were probably less than a year in and in that gooey phase of love and so when we sat at the dining room table with his grandparents (met for the first time, for me), Kyle’s grandmother scolded him: no kissing at the table, she said.

So his grandfather gently nudged our chairs away from the table.

It wasn’t long before we lost Kyle’s grandfather, and this weekend, we lost Kyle’s nanny, too. She was a woman who liked things just-so, a quilter, a woman who adored sweet potatoes and disliked cheese. She was meticulous and strong-minded and unfailing genteel. Which is why, when speaking of cheese, she would say, I just don’t care for it, and if she didn’t quite agree with something you said might say, Really? and then if she really didn’t like something might say, Oh, please. Ladylike, but: she said what she meant.

Nanny visited Dayton during the madness of getting the big apartment in New House ready for tenants. A team of us, including Kyle’s parents and an aunt and uncle, scurried around painting and laying flooring and landscaping. Nanny pitched in, too, coaching us on how to trim the hedges: just-so. It was a frenzied, frantic, disorganized weekend. It was exhausting.

And as she was leaving, she said it: Oh, I just had so much fun.

Okay. So maybe nanny, a woman of voluminous social graces, could sometimes exaggerate. But I think she saw this thing we call renovating, this messy and uncomfortable and failing-filled rush to and through something bigger than us, together, and she called it for what it was: life. The best of it. And so a paint and grout-splattered weekend is a joy, for the same reason my great-grandmother adored playing rounds of less-than-thrilling Pokeno games and my grandmother Tess willingly(!) took afternoon calls about just about anything, from dog cataracts to making soup. Because we will never get enough time with the people that we love. And so we take the messy and we take the mundane and and we take the hard and we take the beautiful, too.

Nanny, we just had so much fun, too. The whole thing.

And in honor of that fine lady, who will be missed, some photos from the projects of last week:

These were the counters right after the faux concrete, and I was like: I like this. Then I laid a coat of tung oil because I figured expert renovators have to experiment, and remembered I was actually an amateur renovator. I don't have pictures of the blotchy mess that followed, but it was bad, and that's how they've been for months.

These were the counters right after the faux concrete, and I was like: I like this. Then I laid a coat of tung oil because I figured expert renovators have to experiment, and remembered I was actually an AMATEUR renovator. I don’t have pictures of the blotchy mess that followed, but it was bad, and that’s how they were for months.

And the servants stairs, were looking like this...

And the servants stairs, were looking like this…

And they still look old, because they are. Good enough for now (eventually the stairs are coming out).

And they still look old, because they are. Good enough for now (eventually the stairs are coming out).

And we redrew plans for Old House. Again (x100).

And we redrew plans for Old House. Again (x100). Good things are happening there. Can’t wait to show everyone.